THIS WEEK IN TECH

Google’s New Social Scene-Stealer

A few weeks ago, I was hearing rumors about Facebook opening a new email service. Looks like Google beat them to the punch, though, because Gmail just opened up a new Facebook service. Maybe not technically — Facebook plays absolutely no role in “Buzz,” which is what Google named its creation. Buzz just seems to feature some of the same social networking capabilities as Facebook, as well as some Twitter-like traits. In fact, Buzz is sort of like what would happen if Facebook and Twitter had a love child that Gmail adopted and raised.

A Buzz icon on Gmail’s sidebar takes you to a new page where you can share what you’re thinking with your followers. A feed displays the various public conversations you and your circle of contacts are having. There are several ways to share updates, and it’s connected to other social media sites like Twitter, YouTube, Picasa and Flickr.

So how do you get followers in the first place? Some of them are seeded into your account automatically simply because you email them a lot — or possibly even because you USED to email them a lot. Careful not to mix your many secret lives. In fact, if you accept the default setting, that list becomes available to other Buzz users. In some cases, everyone on your network might be able to see who you communicate with based on a frequency algorithm. Unfortunately, humanity is not one big happy family, and some very awkward situations may pop up if that algorithm is not made aware of certain developments — social … legal … biological … extramarital … etc.

Then there’s the spam factor. Gmail usually does a fine job with this, as far as I’m concerned. And it’s really no insult to say that an online communications tool isn’t 100 percent immune to spam — almost none of them are. But spammers probably will try to figure out some way to leverage Buzz, so let’s hope Google applies the same talent that keeps my general inbox clean.

It’s very possible that will happen — Buzz is currently cocooned as a feature within Gmail. In building it that way, Google plays up a very large installed base. Building a brand-new online social network from scratch would be a pretty tall order, even for Google. Meanwhile, Gmail may be less than a year out of beta, but it has a lot of users, and those users have long been able to do things like see if their other Gmail contacts are online and chat with them live. Playing around with Buzz is sort of an extension of what some of them are already used to doing.

But is it a natural extension? Buzz’s similarity to existing social platforms may actually make it less attractive to potential users. Or, as IDC’s Karsten Wiede put it, “Why would I use this if I’m already on Facebook? Why use two services?”

Digital Trends Publisher Scott Steinberg made a similar point, but he added that if the ability to send photos and videos from within Gmail and Buzz does prove to be compelling, then maybe we’re looking at something interesting.

Idle chatter may not be the only thing Buzz is good for. In introducing the service, Google officials did utter the words “mobile” and “enterprise.” Yes, there is a mobile version, and it’s no big stretch to imagine Buzz growing into Google tools like its enterprise Apps suite.

What’s unknown is whether enterprises will bite.

First, they’ll have to get over the fear of feeding all their vital info into the mouth of the Beast, but Google Apps has proven that given the right financial incentive, even a major local government like the City of Los Angeles can work up the nerve to do that.

Second, if you have to use it for work, Buzz might lose some of its buzz. As 451 Group’s Chris Hazelton told us, “I may have email and instant messaging and now I have Buzz that I have to manage as well. That’s in addition to Facebook, LinkedIn. And when you have a smartphone, that could be kind of cumbersome.” Much agreed.

Mobile Buzz might prove a useful field communication tool for businesses, but remember that this is Google we’re talking about, and that company was born to sell ads, so expect to be knee-deep in them location-aware come-ons. Consumers may tolerate that up to a point, but businesses may demand something with a little less noise.


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Bookworm Bitten

The condition of bibliomania is described as an obsessive-compulsive disorder involving the collecting or hoarding of books to the point where social relations are damaged. So count Google as a biliomaniac, because its drive to collect as many books as possible is damaging its relationship with writers, publishers, other tech corporations, and the U.S. Department of Justice.

It’s not an issue of space. Google converts the books to data and puts it all on servers — and Google’s got plenty of servers. Instead, it’s an issue of legality, and groups that oppose the Google Books Library project staged a very forceful intervention and won a victory.

The DoJ just told the court overseeing the case that significant copyright and antitrust issues remain in the proposed settlement between Google and the Authors Guild.

For years, Google has been trying to scan and digitize a massive number of books — many of them out of print or just plain rare. Some are in the public domain, meaning anyone can do anything with them, but some are not. They may be rare, but they’re copyrighted, and groups representing publishers and authors have a big problem with Google’s plan to digitize them. So lawyers spent many, many billable hours hashing out a settlement agreement between Google and two big groups: the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers.

The deal doesn’t satisfy everyone, though — many writers say the Authors Guild doesn’t speak for them. The Open Book Alliance has also done its best to trip up the process. It’s backed by companies like Microsoft, Yahoo and Amazon — almost all of Google’s biggest enemies, in other words.

So now that the latest tweak to the agreement has failed to satisfied the Justice Department, where to from here? Well, the DoJ did say that some progress had been made in eliminating certain open-ended provisions it didn’t like before; and the latest version protects unclaimed works and gets rid of a most-favored nation provision.

But what about the orphans!? So-called orphan works — books whose ownership or status is still in question — worry regulators. They also don’t like the opt-out nature of the whole thing.

Ultimately, it’s up to the judge to decide the matter, but the fact that the Justice Department still thinks it stinks suggests this thing’s not going to pass anytime soon.

Google the ISP

Don’t think for a second that Google’s satisfied taking over your social life and gobbling up the world’s libraries. It’s also starting to wrap its fingers around the series of tubes that bring the interwebs to your thinking box.

It’s announced plans to built out an experimental super high-speed broadband network. We’re talking gigabit speeds. By comparison, if your home connection gets more than 10 MEGAbits per second, and you’re not a torrent-addicted maniac, then you’re probably doing just fine. “Mega” means million; “giga” means billion — you do the math.

What would anyone need with a connection that fast? That’s what Google says it’s trying to find out. The network will be mainly there for developers to play with. They’ll sit down at a gigabit-connected workstation, drop a few tabs of creativity serum, and build the sort of Web apps we’ll take for granted 10 years down the line. Theoretically.

So, what will we see? The end of traditional cable TV? High-definition, full-body-image teleconferencing? Google says it’s giving developers free rein to produce what they will on the network. They’re not required to build apps for Google, and the company won’t do any network-level monitoring or filtering for copyright, though a spokesperson made sure to point out to us that Google always seeks to respect copyright laws. Still, I’m sure someone out there is already dreaming about hooking uTorrent up to this thing.

Publisher Pile-On

It didn’t take long for another major publishing house to follow Macmillan’s lead and insist on breaking free of Amazon’s e-book price restrictions. A couple of weeks ago, Amazon and Macmillan had a very public disagreement over e-book pricing. Amazon wanted a US$9.99 ceiling; Macmillan wanted to sell for a few bucks more, so Amazon went as far as de-shelfing Macmillan titles. Amazon knew it would have to relent eventually, and sure enough, its resistance didn’t last long.

Just a few days after that, Hachette Group announced it would opt for a so-called agency relationship with sellers, an arrangement that lets them sell e-books for possibly a few dollars higher than Amazon would like.

There’s some give to its take, though. Hachette CEO David Young said the company would release e-books at the same time as hardcover editions. That eliminates one annoyance that e-book fans have sometimes made a big stink about — staggered release schedules that make e-edition buyers wait weeks to get their digital copies. We’ll have to wait and see if any other big publishers change policy to follow that lead.

Meanwhile, Amazon likely holds Apple at least partially accountable for the destruction of its price-limit model. Five years ago, Apple would flog a music partner for even thinking about violating its dollar-per-song rule; now its iPad is making all sorts of friends in the book industry by letting publishers do things their way.

Why Wouldn’t They Like My Singing?

The iPhone’s gotten a lot of credit for having a really nice mobile Safari browser, but before the iPhone was a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye, Opera was making mobile browsers for cellphones, and they’ve been pretty popular among platforms like Windows Mobile and BlackBerry.

Still, no version of Opera has ever sold through the iPhone App Store. Big surprise, Apple has rules about that kind of thing. It’ll only allow third-party app builders to sell browsers based on the same WebKit technology that Safari is based on — so they’re all basically Safari in different costumes. This rule would seem to prevent Opera from getting a foot in the door.

Opera is apparently not deterred by this fact. It’s actually promised to demo a version of its new Opera Mini 5, which runs on iPhone, at the upcoming World Mobile Congress. For the Opera crowd, it’s App Store or Bust: A company spokesperson told us that Opera sees no reason why Apple would reject its browser and hopes that Apple won’t, “deny its users a choice when it comes to mobile browsing.”

You may recall that Opera was one of the companies leading the charge against Microsoft’s Internet Explorer desktop browser in Europe. The situation in that case was different, in that Microsoft didn’t ban other browsers from running on the Windows OS. IE was bundled in, but users were free to install all sorts of other browsers.

That wasn’t enough for Microsoft’s opponents, though — they wanted copies of Windows sold in Europe to feature a sort of randomized list of various bundled browsers users could choose from during the installation process, just to make absolutely sure Explorer didn’t have an unfair advantage.

If that’s the kind of thing that upsets Opera and gets it pounding the antitrust drum, it’s going to be interesting to hear what it has to say if Apple gives it a thumbs-down at the App Store.

And if that happens, will Opera open shop in the Jailbreak Ghetto and start offering Mini 5 to users who’ve hacked their iPhones? Not likely, according to 451 Group’s Chris Hazelton. He told us, “In addition to end users, Opera’s customers are mobile device vendors and carriers. These are also its channel partners, and Opera cannot push a device vendor too hard by working with the gray market.”

Learning to Be Human

Perhaps the Nexus One really is the ultimate Android phone. That’s not just because it’s got Google’s name on the casing, but also because the entire buying process has been pretty much dehumanized. You can’t touch one before buying it — you can only look at it online. And until recently, you couldn’t even speak to a person about an order or shipment. Just talk to the Interwebs, because Google doesn’t want to hear you moan about your phone.

That’s changed. Now Google has at least put some warm bodies on phone lines so Nexus One buyers who run into trouble in the ordering and shipping process can cry and wail to a sentient being. Not so much with Nexus One tech — if you have a problem with the way the phone’s actually working, they still don’t want to hear about it.

Google also showed a touch of human empathy in the way it deals with Nexus deserters. Before, those who bought a Nexus but decided they didn’t want to use it with a T-Mobile contract anymore had to pay a huge early termination fee of $350 to Google — that was over and above the ETF T-Mobile holds customers to. Now Google’s part of the gouge is scaled down to just 150 bucks.

Of course, Google has had to service customers for over a decade, and judging by its market cap, it does a pretty good job at it. However, those customers are mostly businesses that want to buy advertising, not Joe-Kegerators who want buy what looks to be a snappy little smartphone.

When it comes to us common folk, Google usually gives us services like search and Docs and Gmail for free, and if customer service is nil, well … it’s free, whadja expect? As Azita Arvani of the Arvani Group put it, “Users’ expectations of customer support for free service are not very high. With Nexus, users pay a lot of money for the phone and for the service in addition to potentially getting hit by EFTs. Users will yell out loud if they pay a lot for a product and not get good customer support.”

Hackers Attacked

China’s rep as a safe haven for cybercrooks and intellectual property thieves hasn’t been helped much by its tiff with Google. It started when agents believed to be based in China broke into Google’s network, so Google said it was considering pulling all of its business out of the country. Then this Chinese copycat Web site Goojje popped up, apparently trying to capitalize on Google’s name and logo recognition.

Well, China’s government wants the world to know that cybercrime will not be tolerated — or at the very least, one particular cybercrime site will not be tolerated, now that everyone’s looking. Chinese police pulled the plug on something called the “Black Hawk Safety Net,” an online destination where aspiring and expert evil hackers alike could share their knowledge, workshop their skills and trade malware to unleash on victims’ computers. Before the raid, it was reportedly drawing something like $1 million in membership fees.

So that’s one less hacker hideout to worry about, but Black Hawk was really just a drop in the bucket, regardless of whether you’re looking at China’s cybercriminal population in particular or the entire world’s. What difference did it make, really? For James Lewis at the Center for Strategic and International studies, it was a PR move straight from the PRC government’s playbook. He told us, “When they decide the environment is a problem, they arrest somebody for pollution. When they decide corruption is a problem, they arrest somebody for corruption. This is just part of the Chinese political culture. For me, it’s a ‘talking point’ arrest. When we claim that they don’t take the hacking problem seriously, they can point to this and say, ‘Look, we just broke up this ring. You can’t say that.'”

But what about Goojje? It still seems to be mimicking Google, not just in terms of font and color selection but also in the way it makes cutesy little changes to the home screen day by day. As of Friday, it still looked awfully Google-esque.

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